Comment (2018-01-17): 18 Reasons to Vote No on Asian Art Museum Expansion

To: Seattle City Council
From: Jonathan Mark and Protect Volunteer Park
Subject: 18 Reasons to Vote No on Asian Art Museum expansion (CB 119146 & 119150)
Date: 2018-01-17

Dear Seattle City Council:

This message presents an overview of our objections to the Asian Art Museum expansion and 55-year agreement. We thought it might be helpful to summarize our various comments. For more detailed reading, we recommend these 4 recent comments:

Lease agreement:
Zoning legislation:
Capital spending:
CB 119150 is a Debt Obligation:


  • The proposed expansion is visually dominant and spoils the Olmsted Brothers’ naturalistic design of Volunteer Park. With great foresight the Olmsteds planned a landscape park to give the public the psychological benefits of being in nature, within a city they recognized as likely to become much more dense and built-up.
  • The proposal makes the museum building taller, contrary to claims by Parks Department staff (and the legislation’s misleading language about “elevation”). A wall over 49 feet tall would be placed directly in the greensward, blocking Olmsted-designed vistas.
  • We have documented that there is not enough parking available in Volunteer Park to expand the museum program. Seattle Art Museum (SAM)’s submitted parking study is inadequate, as it counted cars on two wet November days and claimed that to represent peak demand from park users.
  • Alternatives were never offered to the public, as the Parks Department’s Public Involvement Policy requires. It is not public involvement to repeatedly present one single plan, claiming it is “necessary”.
  • The proposed lease commits the City to 55 years of subsidy of one partner without the opportunity for any reconsideration. The old agreement was not a long-term commitment and could be ended by either party with 3 years notice.
  • Under the proposed lease deal, the City commits to spend $19 million immediately, plus 55 years of free rent for SAM, 55 years of subsidy payments to SAM, and take responsibility for major capital repairs to the building. Over the entire 55 years the City is to receive absolutely nothing, $0, in exchange for taking on these obligations. This deal is in blatant conflict with the public interest.
  • This lease is a debt obligation more than a lease, committing the City to make future payments and provide rent-free use of City property. Considered as a debt obligation, it is onerous and would be forbidden under the City’s debt policies. The term is too long, 55 years, and the payments are not fixed, but increase over time.
  • The City has not had an appraisal done to estimate the market value rent which is being foregone, surely an essential data point to determine the public cost of this proposal. But we are asked to bind the next 55 years of City policymakers to these terms and budgetary expenditures.
  • A fair process would consider proposals from multiple potential tenants, not just one.
  • Seattle Art Museum (SAM)’s Asian art exhibits were founded in the 1930’s when racist laws forbade people of Asian and Pacific Islander backgrounds to immigrate, own property, and build wealth. We would only perpetuate institutional racism by committing to an additional 55-year subsidy of SAM’s Asian museum without allowing any other organization to be considered as a potential partner.
  • SAM is not a “public museum” as referred to in the proposed development agreement. The public has no ownership of SAM’s assets, right to elect its directors, or control over its operations. SAM is a private corporation whose non-profit status requires it to be operated for an educational purpose, prior to any City subsidy.
  • The Parks Department is the wrong department to select a huge arts subsidy. Arts investments should be handled through the Office of Arts and Culture, with involvement of the Arts Commission, evaluating fairness relative to other City arts investments.
  • This investment in expanded Volunteer Park facilities violates the Parks Department’s equity goal of focusing capital improvements on underserved areas and rapidly densifying urban villages.
  • SAM has already built 8 floors of expansion space downtown with the help of a City subsidy in the form of a bond guarantee. SAM now declines to use these floors for its expansion, preferring to lease them to for-profit corporations linked to SAM’s trustees, with SAM keeping the revenue. Each of these 8 floors contains twice the space proposed to be added in Volunteer Park.
  • We take climate action by preserving green space. It is climate-harmful to build expanded facilities in public green space when suitable expansion space is already built downtown, having much better public transportation options.
  • The City’s original subsidy of the Volunteer Park museum came with an agreement that the museum be free of charge, four days per week. The proposed new agreement requires only four free days per month. The public subsidy has increased while the public benefits have been reduced.
  • SAM’s planned Asian Paintings Conservation Center at the expanded Volunteer Park museum is an industrial use, not recreational, and of no direct public benefit.
  • The proposed additions are too close to two exceptional beech trees, coming right up to the drip line and (in the case of the Park Lobby) overhanging the drip line and depriving the tree’s critical root zone of needed rainfall.

Thank you for considering our input.

Best regards,

Jonathan Mark and Protect Volunteer Park